Book review: Smarter than you think, by Clive Thompson

One sentence book review: I loved this book and think you should read it. Go on, go buy it.

What, you need more than that? Oh, fine.

For me this book was a little bit too preaching to the choir, because this is a subject I think about a lot, so it was more interesting from a “how to talk to people about this sort of thing” point of view. That being said, I did learn about two really quite important things out of it:

In general neither of those are really what the book is about: They both come up in the context of how technology can affect them. The 2 sigma problem in terms of how technology in the classroom (which is, admittedly, not usually well implemented) can take a lot of the burden off teachers and thus allow them to focus more on giving one on one time to students who need them. The latter in terms of how ambient awareness tools like social media can help you become aware of the things that everyone is thinking but nobody is saying.

What this book is about is the idea that technology changes the way we think by providing us with capabilities we didn’t have, or more commonly by taking capabilities that we had and making them easier, or ubiquitous, which can change the cost benefit analysis radically. Google or wikipedia are not “new” capabilities – we could always have gone down to the local library and browsed an encyclopaedia, but by making them first easy and then, with mobile, ubiquitous, we enable new modes of thought that we would not previously have been able to achieve because we would have got stuck on the absence of some bit of information.

The author is not blind to the costs. He does talk about the problems of distraction, and the way that the tools of technology can both help as well as hurt oppressive regimes, and he is well aware that different people receive the benefits of technology to wildly differing degrees, but by and large the book is optimistic, and is a refreshing and pleasant look at the positive effects of technology on our thinking.

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